Elliot Roth enjoys an expansive view of the city from the 18th floor of his condo in uptown Charlotte. He just didn’t expect someone to be peeping into his home from that height.
But that’s what he said happened early one evening in mid-March, when he spotted a drone hovering outside his window in the Skye condos on South Caldwell Street. He said he believes the drone spotted him watching it, took off then returned soon after, slowly going up the side of the building and peering at windows.
“It’s creepy that someone’s looking in your window,” Roth said. “You figure you’re 18 stories up no one’s going to be watching you, right?”
Even if it wasn’t peeping, the drone might have been violating federal rules against flying over a crowded area.
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Also in March, a drone crashed onto the roof of a building Wells Fargo leases on South College Street. A month later, management at The Mint Apartments on West Trade Street told police they worried that a drone might have videoed residents and their belongings.
Then on Wednesday night, a police helicopter almost struck a drone that had come within 20 feet of it while flying uptown near BB&T Ballpark during a Knights game.
There are more than 20,000 unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, registered in North Carolina, the state Department of Transportation said. Most belong to hobbyists, although DOT recently issued its 1,000th permit for commercial or government operators.
“Drones, to me, are one of the biggest things to happen to aviation since the jet engine,” said N.C. Aviation Division Director Bobby Walston.
Given their surge in popularity, “privacy concerns are definitely something that is ongoing,” said Basil Yap, the division’s UAS program manager.
Are existing laws enough?
The March incident wasn’t even the first time Roth encountered a drone he found suspicious. Over a year ago, he said, another one hovered off his balcony at night with its lights blinking. That likely violated federal rules against flying drones at night.
He saw a guy controlling it from a nearby parking lot. “Whether it’s somebody being malicious or somebody who got a new toy, I don’t know,” Roth said.
Other neighbors have talked about drones buzzing around their homes too, he added.
It remains an open question whether existing laws are sufficient to deal with drones. “Technology is almost always ahead of regulation,” said Raleigh attorney Stephen Hartzell, an expert in the developing field of drone law.
But he cautioned against having laws that focus on one type of tech, which potentially could derail innovation. Hartzell suggested laws that remain neutral about technology could be applied to better effect.
So what can you do about a suspicious drone?
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police referred comment to the FAA, which said people should notify local law enforcement if they have concerns.
A plan to sell hunting permits to shoot down drones made its way onto the ballot of a small Colorado town.
In 2014, North Carolina legislators approved a law on drones, stating they cannot be used for surveillance of a person, property or occupied dwelling without that person’s consent. It also barred public dissemination of those images without consent.
Violators could face action in civil, not criminal, court. The law did not address what would happen if the images were used by an individual but not shared publicly.
If a person watched those videos by themselves, Hartzell said, it’s possible that existing peeping tom or stalking laws could apply.
But first you’d need to figure out who owns the drone. And a recent court decision could make that a lot harder.
The court rules
Citing safety concerns, in late 2015 the FAA required hobbyists to register all drones weighing between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds.
A year later, more than 626,000 hobbyists had registered, the FAA said. In Mecklenburg County, records from February show that more than 1,450 drones were registered, up from more than 950 drones registered in May 2016.
But last month, a federal appeals court struck down that rule, stating that a 2012 law barred the FAA from making new rules for such aircraft and that it was up to Congress to repeal the ban. The FAA has not decided how it will respond.
The ruling could make it harder for law enforcement to figure out who owns problem drones if they are no longer required to be registered, Hartzell said.
“One of the reasons the FAA thought it was a great idea to have a registry is...to be able to know who is flying these things because there are bad outcomes, whether they are intentional or not,” he said.
Enter the drone slayer
There’s one approach to errant drones that experts, state and federal officials strongly discourage: don’t try to shoot them down or otherwise disable them.
For one thing, discharging a firearm within city limits in Charlotte is illegal.
It’s very tempting for people who fly drones to go uptown.
Drone enthusiast Greg Baker
The FAA considers drones to be aircraft, even though they are unmanned. Shooting at one could cause damage in the air or the ground, the FAA said, and could result in civil or criminal charges.
But that didn’t stop a Kentucky man from shooting one down that had been flying over his property in 2015. William Merideth called himself “the drone slayer,” and even sold orange T-shirts with that name on it.
He was cleared of criminal charges by a judge citing invasion of privacy concerns, local media reported. After the drone owner sued Merideth for damages to the drone, the case was tossed out of federal court.
Then there’s the good people of Deer Trail, Colo. One of its 681 residents wanted the town to offer hunting licenses to take aim at drones over the community. The drone-hunting plan made its way onto a local ballot, but voters shot it down in 2014.
To Greg Baker, drones can “spark the imagination” and attract kids to computer science and engineering.
A couple years ago, he and his brother started a meet-up group for fellow drone enthusiasts around Charlotte. They didn’t go near apartments or condos downtown because they didn’t want people to worry they were being spied on.
“We certainly understand the concern,” Baker said. “Cities are more interesting in general, so it’s very tempting for people who fly drones to go uptown.”
He typically flies on his own property these days, and his group has not met in more than a year because of the challenge of finding space that can accommodate a lot of drones in the air.
That could change.
Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation is developing the county’s first policy for using drones in its parks, division director for park operations Peter Cook said. He hopes to have a plan in place by early fall that designates an area in several parks for drones.
Baker welcomed the news, and remains an advocate for flying drones responsibly.
“Most people I know spend a lot of time building one or a lot of money purchasing one,” he said. “The last thing they want to do is have problems because of the drones.”
Rise of the drones
Interest in drones continues to, well, soar.
The FAA estimates that the hobbyist fleet will likely triple in the next few years to more than 3.5 million units by 2021.
Given their popularity, police expect problems caused by drones to increase as well.
N.C. DOT’s Walston said he views drones like the internet: “There are tremendous benefits but... in the hands of the wrong people it can be used in very bad ways.”
Observer researcher Maria David, database editor Gavin Off, reporter Jane Wester and the Associated Press contributed
The FAA set these guidelines for recreational drone users:
Always fly below an altitude of 400 feet, and fly within your direct line of sight.
Be aware of FAA airspace requirements.
Do not fly near stadiums, public events or directly over people.
Do not fly near aircraft, especially near airports.
Do not fly near emergency response efforts.
Do not fly for compensation.
Do not fly at night.
Do not fly a drone that weighs more than 55 pounds.
Drone Safety Resources
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration put out non-binding best practices for drone privacy, transparency and accountability.
N.C. DOT encourages recreational operators to take the UAS Knowledge Test that is required of commercial and government users, and get to know drone rules and regulations.
The FAA has many resources listed on its webpage for drone users.
CMPD posted to its social media pages a video on drone laws.